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Returning to God’s Design: A Response to Stanley E. Porter, “Gender Equality and the Analogy of Slavery”

June 22, 2023
By Buist Fanning

It is good to see the essay by Stanley Porter on “Gender Equality and the Analogy of Slavery” in the new edition of Discovering Biblical Equality (DBE). As its editors say, the new edition attempts to articulate its egalitarian stance “based on the tenets of biblical teaching” (7), and this essay provides a treatment of the topic that is more solidly grounded in New Testament (NT) exegesis itself as compared to the contribution on slavery by William Webb in the two previous editions of DBE (2004, 2005).[1] Arguments for gender equality in the wider culture — and by some in the church — that are based on the analogy of slavery are often a distracting debater’s trick with no basis in biblical teaching itself (i.e., “the Bible endorses slavery as well as oppression of women, but now we know better”). Porter mentions this approach at the outset of his essay and moves on from it without direct critique (an oblique rejection of it appears on pp. 327–28). The approach he espouses is that “there is an imperfect analogy between slavery and gender equality in the Bible.” He argues that the NT, especially Paul, advanced “a countercultural view of slavery that called for liberating treatment of slaves,” even while accommodating itself generally to the wider first-century culture. And “the analogy with gender equality is similar, in that the New Testament promotes gender equality that . . . is grounded in fundamental scriptural passages” (328). Porter does not discuss the Bible’s teaching on gender equality at length (leaving that to other essays in the book) but instead concentrates his attention on what the NT says specifically about slavery. The point of his essay, however, is to argue that “the analogy of slavery is in fact an appropriate one for gender equality,” and that “the Bible, and especially the New Testament, has analogous liberating views of both slavery and gender equality” (333).

As a frame of reference for this response to Porter’s essay, I would express the NT teaching on slavery in three broad points. First, the NT did not condone or command slavery but gave instructions to regulate the conduct of Christian masters and slaves within the established institution of the Roman world of its day. It never commands slavery and never commends it as a good thing. Second, its instructions to regulate the life of masters and slaves are based on transcultural principles that undermine slavery as an institution and lead ultimately to its abolition in later centuries. These principles include the shared spiritual freedom and familial unity between masters and slaves (1 Cor 7:21–22; Gal 3:28; 1 Tim 6:1–2; Philem 15–16), their submission and accountability to the same Lord (1 Cor 7:22-23; Eph 6:5–9; Col 3:22–4:1; 1 Pet 3:18–19), and more broadly the shared image of God among all humans (Gen 1:26–27; 5:1–3; 9:6; James 3:9). And my third point is that the NT never grounds the institution of slavery itself in God’s design for humans from creation or in distinctions in nature or essence between slaves and masters.

The Dog that Didn’t Bark

My evaluation of Porter’s discussion of slavery in the NT is that he does a fine job of arguing for the first two points above, although he may not express them exactly as I have done. His treatment is well-informed, well-presented, and well-grounded in exegesis and biblical theology. He argues effectively against the views of some that the NT leaves the question of slavery open, to be resolved by the church at a later date. He also counters the idea that its teaching on slaves as well as women was simply an accommodation to the non-Christian values of its wider culture. All of this is to be commended.

But Porter completely ignores that third important facet of the issue, a common failing among egalitarians who have a high view of Scripture as well as ones who set aside the Bible’s authority altogether. This constitutes “the dog that didn’t bark”[2] in Porter’s argument that “the analogy of slavery is in fact an appropriate one for gender equality” (333; see also 349–50). In fact, the biblical texts calling for a distinction in roles for men and women in marriage and the church definitively anchor that teaching in God’s good design for male and female in creation (Gen 1:26; 2:18–25; 1 Cor 11:3–16; 14:34–35; Eph 5:22–33; 1 Tim 2:8–15). On the other hand, nothing of this sort is ever said about the mutual relations of slaves and masters. Unlike some features of the race-based slavery found in the American South and elsewhere, slaves are never portrayed in the Bible as sub-human or different from masters in their God-given status as persons. Not to discuss this feature of “what the NT says about slavery” is a notable omission, especially when arguing for an analogy with gender relations in the family and in the church. Even if Porter prefers to read these NT references to God’s design differently, they should be acknowledged and a different approach declared. This point about grounding in creation or the lack of it is a significant element in complementarian interpretation of the slavery question as compared to the issue of gender roles.[3] It should not have been ignored altogether, even if more detailed discussion of the topic appears elsewhere in this edition of DBE.

But What is “Gender Equality”?

This omission on Porter’s part leads to a further critique of his essay. He uses the phrase “gender equality” some twenty-five times, but nowhere does he specifically define or explain what he means by “equality” of men and women. When he does approach a definition, he sends mixed signals. In an admittedly “brief summary” of “Gender Equality in the Bible,” he works with Genesis 1:26–27 and says that God made “a distinction within humanity” of male and female but that “humanity was created equally with both male and female.” It is a “gender-equal creation account” (331–32). Does this mean equality in person or essence but differentiation in role or function? Is it equality before God but distinction within human relations? On the next page, Porter summarizes the household codes of Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, etc. and says they show that “the relationship between men and women is reciprocal, indicating a relationship of equality rather than hierarchy” (332). In his conclusion he states that “the biblical and especially New Testament evidence for gender equality . . . indicates that the early church was to be a community of equals because they [i.e., women] are equals.” And he cites Galatians 3:28 as giving “a powerful egalitarian statement regarding both slavery and gender relations when Paul states that, in Christ, there is to be no distinction between them for the purposes of membership within the Christian community, grounded in a more fundamental equality” (349–50). So does this equality focus on full acceptance in the community and in relationship to God but not in regard to role distinctions within the community? Porter seems to leave that possibility open.

In addition, in Porter’s more detailed comments on Ephesians 5, he writes, “in Paul’s code, wives are to be submissive, and husbands are to love sacrificially and in the same way as they love themselves, a reciprocal relationship with more demanded of the husband than the wife” (345). On Colossians 3 he says, “The first section addresses wives and husbands, with wives to be submissive to their husbands and husbands to love their wives and not embitter them (again, demanding more of the husband)” (346). Doesn’t this reciprocity itself imply different roles for males and females in marriage? Isn’t submission a feature of hierarchy? This seems to conflict with the detailed definition of gender equality in the editors’ introduction to the book (1–2, also 5n6) and raise questions about whether Porter is taking a different (more biblically faithful) line.

One final brief observation. Porter comments quickly that mention of slavery in the Gospels and Acts is of a different literary character than its treatment in the Epistles (337): “these narrative accounts [of slavery] are not primarily concerned with providing social commentary while tracing the ministry of Jesus and his early followers. . . . We must turn instead to exhortative material that has a conscious intention to address social behavior, especially within the church.” Yet when he briefly summarizes “gender equality in the Bible,” he relies heavily on how Jesus included women in his circle and how Paul mentions women who served in the churches (Lydia, Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla, and others in Rom 16) to offset the “potentially problematic passages” of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 (332–33). This is a common strategy employed by egalitarians. Yet it violates the hermeneutical principle that Porter affirms on page 337. The principle is that central passages (i.e., ones specifically intended to give instruction about church order or marriage) should take priority over incidental or peripheral mentions.[4] To allow Romans 16, Philippians 4, etc. to override 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 and 1 Timothy 2 is inconsistent with the solid observation about genre that Porter makes earlier.

Returning to God’s Design

By way of conclusion, I offer this exhortation: God’s good intention for humans in his design from creation for the family and the church should be emphasized more than ever in contemporary Christian teaching. This is not just a matter of over-punctilious exegesis. In these days of great confusion in the wider culture about sexuality and personal identity, Christians need a solid foundation grounded in God’s intent for humans from the beginning. They must understand clearly that the NT teachings about men and women in the family and in the church are not ad hoc ideas drawn from the ancient writers’ personal preferences or cultural milieu, but from God’s good design for humans made in his image as male and female. This is a significant element in a biblical theology of sex and gender. Christian teaching that avoids such questions out of fearful silence or desire to avoid controversy should no longer be an option.[5]

Buist Fanning is Senior Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.

[1] See hesitations about Webb’s approach in this new edition of DBE at pp. 328, 336, 343, and 349. Also there is a veiled critique of his work on p. 54: “This is similar to William J. Webb’s model developed in Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001). However, we are not suggesting that this movement need go beyond the New Testament to arrive at gender equality for men and women in Christ, since this is accomplished within the New Testament.”

[2] “The dog that didn’t bark” is a trope taken from Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze” (1892). It illustrates the point that investigators should explore not just the factors that are clearly present in a situation but also the evidence that is absent but could be expected. Noticing what is not there can be significant.

[3] E.g., Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1980), 158, 260-62; and John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991, 2006, 2012), 65-66, 176-77.

[4] E.g., Discussions of divorce and remarriage in the Bible should give greater priority to Matt. 5 and 19 and 1 Cor. 7 rather than Rom. 7.

[5] It is ironic that neglect of these ideas on the part of pro-LBGTQ Christians today reflects the same conformity of biblical interpretation to contemporary social values that were exhibited by pro-slavery interpreters of the Bible in ante-bellum America. See Carl Trueman, “Baptizing the Status Quo, Then and Now,” First Things, March 30, 2023.

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